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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2021

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JUNE 2021 Issue
Field Notes

Did communism make us human?

On the anthropology of David Graeber

“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said ‘This is mine,’ and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.’” — Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755)

My friend David Graeber’s sudden death last year came as a great shock. More than anyone since Frederich Engels, he succeeded in digging anthropology out of the shadows and making it seem empowering to ordinary people.

As politically active anthropologists, we had much in common. But for two anarchists to agree on everything would be astonishing. Graeber’s delight in being provocative could be hugely creative. He enjoyed telling his friends that everything I believe about human history is just plain wrong. Dismissing traditional theories about “primitive communism”—and dismissing Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas on the origin of inequality—he said they were all just fairy tales. No society was ever based on the principle that “the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” There was never a prehistoric paradise when society was run along communist lines.

As soon as Graeber’s Debt: The First Five 5,000 Years hit the streets in 2011, it was acclaimed not only by anarchists, socialists, and anti-capitalists but also by some of the world’s top economists.1 Early on in the book, Graeber devotes several pages to the topic of communism. Instead of treating it as the dream of common ownership, a political program, Graeber redefines communism as “any human relationship that operates on the principles of ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’.” Since relationships of this kind are to be found everywhere, Graeber can claim to be bringing things down to earth, celebrating communism as not just an ideal but an everyday reality—the foundation of all human social life. Qualifying this, Graeber says that since selfish, competitive relationships are also found everywhere, communism can never be a stable arrangement. In his words: “All of us act like communists a good deal of the time. None of us acts like a communist consistently.”

Long before Graeber arrived on the scene, evolutionary scientists had been debating whether humans differ from other primates in being instinctively disposed to cooperate where possible. As always there are arguments—not everyone agrees. But, in addition to cooperation with friends and relatives, the Darwinian social strategy labelled “cooperation with strangers” has become widely recognised as part of the psychological make-up of our species.2

Graeber’s contribution was a relabelling exercise designed to shock, horrify, and delight. Of all things, Graeber chose to describe everyday sociability as “communism.” After decades of Cold War and endless warnings about the Red Menace and the need for the USA to lead the Free World in opposition to Communism—after all this, Graeber had the audacity to simply state that we are communists when we are at our kindest and best.

It was a brilliant move, and of course it worked. Part of the attraction was that it could please everyone. Unlike Marxist versions of communism, which might threaten the owners of capital, Graeber’s version leaves property relations intact. No trace here of Rousseau’s declaration that “the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” Communism, according to Graeber’s new definition, has nothing to do with how property is owned. In fact, the good news is that you can have private property, feudalism, corporate monopoly capitalism, slavery, or whatever and still enjoy the benefits of communism. As I have heard critics say, no wonder some bankers loved it!3

Graeber argues explicitly that communism tends to emerge everywhere, irrespective of how property is owned. His reasoning is simple: “Solitary pleasures will always exist, but for most human beings, the most pleasurable activities almost always involve sharing something: music, food, liquor, drugs, gossip, drama, beds. There is a certain communism of the senses at the root of most things we consider fun.”4 Even capitalist firms such as the Apple Corporation foster communism internally to encourage their employees to socialise freely and spark one another’s creativity.5 Graeber reminds us that you can’t even enjoy everyday conversation—the normal use of language—without mutual trust and therefore an element of communism.

But it can only be an element. Skilfully deploying ethnographic illustrations, Graeber shows how, in cultures across the world and across historical time, what he terms “communism” comes and goes, alternates with violent, selfish, or competitive principles, wins out sometimes, becomes crushed at other times,but never quite disappears. For we who are libertarian communists at heart, it is a comforting thought. Now we have something to fall back on. In the final analysis, we cannot lose.

Yet, Graeber is also telling us that we cannot win. Traditionally, anarchists and socialists have hoped that, one day, we might govern ourselves along communist lines, just as we once did when all humans were hunters and gatherers. According to Graeber, this is pure fantasy:

Our thinking about communism has been dominated by a myth. Once upon a time, humans held all things in common—in the Garden of Eden, during the Golden Age of Saturn, in Paleolithic hunter-gatherer bands. Then came the Fall, as a result of which we are now cursed with divisions of power and private property. The dream was that someday … we would finally be in a position to put things back, to restore common ownership and common management of collective resources. … We might call this “mythic communism”—or even, “epic communism”—a story we like to tell ourselves. Since the days of the French Revolution, it has inspired millions; but it has also done enormous damage to humanity. It's high time, I think, to brush the entire argument aside.6

According to Graeber, then, it is the left’s time-honored dream of restoring common ownership which has done such “enormous damage to humanity.” In contrast, I think we should point the finger in the opposite direction. More damaging than anything is surely the right-wing assumption that borders, warfare, male dominance, and private property have always existed and always will.

The theory of “primitive communism,” according to Graeber, is no more than a fairy tale, a “magical utopia.” Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer societies were never especially egalitarian, anarchistic, or communistic. In fact, in his view, they were no more likely to be so than cattle herders, farmers, or city-dwellers. Graeber concedes that the social systems of our palaeolithic ancestors did incorporate interpersonal aspects of communism as he defines it. But, in his view, the same can be said of all human societies everywhere, including modern capitalist ones. “Even capitalism can be seen as a system for managing communism,” Graeber writes.7 Like any other social system, he explains, capitalism depends on the spontaneous communism of all of us in our everyday lives.

In repudiating the theory of initial or original communism, Graeber brushed aside an influential lineage of historical and evolutionary thought. I am thinking here of Lewis Henry Morgan, Karl Marx, and Frederich Engels, followed by successive generations of scholars whose work among extant hunter-gatherers has shown that life with neither private property nor the state is not only conceivable but in practice typically harmonious, resilient, and rewarding.

When the eminent anthropologist Richard Lee, for instance, published his “Reflections on Primitive Communism” in 1988, he was speaking directly from his experiences of life among Kalahari San hunter-gatherers.8 If you have participated recently in an anti-capitalist, environmentalist, or other direct action gathering, you will immediately recognise their social ethos as he describes it. These people, supposedly primitive, are in fact us. They have no top-down authority structure, no police force, no tolerance of loud-mouths, no hint of state power. All their resources are communally shared right down to the children. They possess elaborate kinship systems which bind people together across vast landscapes irrespective of territorial boundaries. Within each camp they are assertively egalitarian and their primary levelling mechanism is raucous collective laughter directed against anyone trying to get above themselves.

In 2000, a quite extraordinary book, The Other Side of Eden, was published by the social anthropologist and renowned hunter-gatherer specialist Hugh Brody.9 His gripping book is a masterpiece of narrative and scholarship, gathering together in one volume both the diversity of hunter-gatherer cultures and the core features they have in common.

Tens of millennia ago, Brody wrote, the world’s hunter-gatherer systems would have displayed an immense range of languages and cultural forms. Hints of this diversity come from the hunter-gatherer populations we know today. The indigenous peoples of the Americas speak hundreds of different languages, and all are clear about the many features that allow them to identify themselves as distinct nations or societies. In the forests and tundra of the North American Subarctic and Arctic, where the environment is extreme and landscapes are vast and relatively uniform, hunter-gatherer societies speak a large number of mutually unintelligible dialects that fall into four language families, as distinct from one another as the Romance languages of Western Europe are from the Bantu languages of southern Africa. Linguists estimate that in California alone aboriginal populations spoke some 80 different languages. The variety of hunter-gatherer ways of speaking, comments Brody, is itself a sign of the vast spans of time during which these social systems have been alive.

Language, the author continues, creates the potential for an immense panoply of social and family arrangements, an apparent infinity of ways in which people can codify and convey knowledge, beliefs and ideals. Despite this diversity, however, there are some characteristics that all hunter-gatherers have shared. These are grounded in the kind of relationship hunter-gatherers establish with the world in which they live.

Material well-being depends on knowing, as opposed to endlessly changing, the environment. Many strategies of both hunting and gathering rely on management of the land, from the selective burning of brush and undergrowth to prevent uncontrollable forest fires to the replanting of roots to ensure abundant growth in the following year. Population densities are too low and foraging ranges too immense for anything to be gained by patrolling boundaries or attempting military attacks against neighbouring groups.

Many hunters say that wild animals will agree to be killed only if they are shown respect in both life and death. The rituals and habits of respect are therefore important ways in which hunters and gatherers are not passive harvesters, but are engaged in the complicated business of maintaining the world around them to ensure that its produce is bountiful. In short, the central preoccupation of hunter-gatherer economic and spiritual systems is the maintenance of the natural world as it is. The assumption held deep within this point of view is that the place where a people live is ideal: therefore change is for the worse. If your way of life gives joy and abundance, why seek to change it?

It is only when hunting and gathering gives way to cattle herding, farming, property accumulation, and the state that there is constant dissatisfaction with the way things are, leading to social breakdowns and wars. From that point on, society is riddled with contradictions and endlessly unstable. Widespread frustration now generates never-ending attempts to exploit nature more intensively. We have become so accustomed to this that we forget how it all began. Only when a social system is constantly failing will people keep thirsting for social change.

Another characteristic of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is a deep respect for individual decisions. Communities have experts rather than leaders, men or women whose skills are revered; but decisions about whether to follow their lead or take their advice are matters of individual choice. A hunt leader does not instruct others to follow or to take any particular direction. The expert makes his or her decision known, others then make their decisions, following or not as each prefers. Social and ethical norms are powerful, but they are enforced by a minimum of instruction or organised retribution. Beliefs about the effects of human actions on the spirit world contain implied threats; failure to show the necessary respect for animals can result in hunger and sickness. But rules and the consequences of breaking them are embedded in the stories and advice of elders or in the diagnosis of shamans after things have gone wrong. The individual hunter-gatherer’s links and routes to the spirit world, through dreams or other private forms of insight and intuition, are paramount. Choice and freedom are centred on each person, unconstrained by social hierarchy. This is anarchism—and it works.

For many years, my colleague Jerome Lewis has been working among the Mbendjele BaYaka, egalitarian forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers in the Congo. He describes their politics as an assertive, dynamic process that depends on a complex of interdependent practices that constantly resist the emergence of hierarchy, dependency, and inequality. In a manner typical of assertively egalitarian hunter-gatherers, any hint of individual pride or personal dominance is dealt with using rough humour.

One communal form this takes among the BaYaka is moadjo, a kind of mimicry or pantomime which may be used particularly to quell behaviour deemed unacceptable or absurd. It would be risky for a young person to make fun of an elder, no matter how foolish they were being. But senior women exercise a special privilege, seeing it as their enjoyable role to use moadjo to bring down anyone who seems to be getting too boastful or assertive. A widow or grandmother may start the ball rolling by silently imitating some mannerism of her target—usually a man—in a way which accentuates its absurdity. One or two companions immediately grasp the identity of her target. The sounds of their unconstrained laughter are so contagious that before long, everyone is rolling around while pantomiming the behavior being mocked. Eventually, the only person still straight-faced is the man himself. But the laughter continues mercilessly until, ideally, even he gets the joke, seeing himself as the foolish person he was being. The chorus then subsides as he finally joins in, now laughing at his own expense. A good moadjo performance will succeed in calming the atmosphere by allowing everyone to have a good laugh and forget their anger.10

James Woodburn’s fieldwork among the Hadza in Tanzania during the 1960s in many ways inaugurated the modern era of hunter-gatherer research. Woodburn divided hunter-gatherer societies across the world into two fundamental types according to whether they consume their food resources within hours or days (“immediate-return” hunter-gatherers) or practice longer term storage (“delayed-return” societies). Where storage techniques are in use, certain sections of society typically claim responsibility for guarding and distributing the accumulated wealth, monopolizing this organizing power in their own economic and political interests. It is only in “delayed return” contexts, when wealth begins to be stored and accumulated, that privileged elites and social stratification begin to emerge.11

For tens of thousands of years, hunter-gatherer societies were everywhere of the “immediate return” type, as are the bow-and-arrow hunting Hadza today. In these societies, no one owns a fruiting tree or an area where you can dig yams. No hunter can claim rights in the animal he has killed; all meat has to be brought back to camp. Under these conditions, no one can claim to possess property or give it to selected others in return for their labour or allegiance. Instead, all resources brought into the camp are immediately distributed through what is termed “demand sharing.” This simply means that anyone with more than they personally need will face irresistible collective pressure to let others have their share.

Most often among immediate-return hunter-gatherers, a woman will choose to live with her own mother throughout life, inviting her male sexual partner to visit her in her own camp.12 In an arrangement known as brideservice, a young man will never acquire permanent sexual rights in the woman he regularly visits. Instead, he must continuously earn approval by surrendering all his hunted meat to his mother-in-law for her to distribute as she pleases. In my own work, I have described this as the “hunters’s own kill rule,” an arrangement which systematically denies hunters any right to consume or distribute meat from animals they themselves kill.13 Just as well-organized women exercise their right to take hunted meat from men, children have the right to demand food from adults and cannot be refused. The same applies to the elderly, the frail, and anyone who cannot hunt or gather for themselves.

Whether we describe all this as “communism” is optional, but these are surely moral principles which any libertarian communist, socialist, or anarchist would immediately recognise and celebrate. And here is the point: unlike under capitalism, it is these communistic principles which are the prevailing ones across society as a whole. Yes, there are still conflicts and outbursts of violence. But at no time does anyone derive status, property, or power over women from behavior of this kind.

In view of all this, it seems to me self-evident that communism has proved not only a workable system but the most long-lasting, resilient, and successful way of living ever invented by humans. So, I always felt sad at the way Graeber would poke fun at me and my anthropological colleagues who stressed this point.

Every year at the London Anarchist Bookfair, we in the Radical Anthropology Group would give a talk to a packed room arguing that the social arrangements of our palaeolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors were essentially communist, endorsing the traditional Marxist view that the family, private property, and the state had emerged only relatively recently. Among anarchists—people who don’t like the state—this had long been the mainstream perspective.

But Graeber would have none of it. In his recent writings he argued that, just as communism has always existed, so too has the principle of coercion which underlies the state. Something like the state must always be present in the sense that sovereignty—defined by Graeber as “the power of command”—is an intrinsic component of all human social interaction. In support of this claim, he cites linguistic evidence. “All human languages we know of have imperative forms, and in any society there will be situations where it is considered appropriate for some individuals to tell others what to do.”14 To me it seems astonishing that Graeber should conflate such very different things as imperative linguistic forms and the state. Imperatives are not necessarily top-down. Among immediate-return hunter-gatherers—the Hadza, for example—they frequently illustrate counter-dominance, as children make demands of their parents or women instruct men in how to behave.

Graeber seems to be saying that the basic elements of state power are to be found everywhere, including among supposedly egalitarian hunter-gatherers. For example, he states that

hunter-gatherers cannot be genuine egalitarians because they have Kings.15 I was thrown back when I first heard this assertion.

Hunter-gatherers, Graeber reasons, typically believe in powerful spirits who might suddenly produce a thunderstorm, torrential rain, or a whirlwind. In many cases, prey animals are believed to be protected by such a spirit ready to wreak punishment on any hunter who shows them disrespect. Associating all religion with sovereignty and state power, Graeber depicts hunter-gatherers as fearful people cowering in the face of hostile and incomprehensible forces no different in principle from those wielded by a divine king. In his own words:

Most hunter-gatherers actually do see themselves as living under a state-like regime, even under terrifying despots; it’s just that since we see their rulers as imaginary creatures, as gods and spirits and not actual flesh-and-blood rulers, we do not recognize them as “real.” But they’re real enough for those who live under them.16

Hunter-gatherers, according to Graeber, differ only in that they deny their sovereigns any prospect of material embodiment. As he explains, “Most hunter-gatherers we know of have plenty of kings, but they studiously avoid allowing sovereign powers to fall into the hands of mortal humans, at least on any sort of ongoing basis, and usually in any form at all.”17 Although their Kings are immortal spirits, continues Graeber, they are real—just as real as corporeal Kings—since everyone believes in them. He concludes that because hunter-gatherers have kings, they cannot be considered genuinely egalitarian.

Of all Graeber’s provocative claims, this to me seems the most outlandish. Maybe he makes this claim because he is unfamiliar with hunter-gatherer systems of belief. Or maybe he just enjoys being provocative. In any event, had he been less dismissive of hunter-gatherer studies, he would never have made such an elementary mistake. He would have known that, far from living in abject fear of their spirits, the Kalahari Bushmen—like other egalitarian hunter-gatherers—party with them and joke with them, often gleefully making obscene jokes at their expense. When God is the Trickster, the whole idea of divine authority is essentially a belly-laugh.18 When Richard Lee asked a Bushman informant whether he and his people recognised a headman or King, he was told, “Of course we have headmen! … In fact we are all headmen…. Each one of us is headman over himself!”19 From this, we may conclude, with Lee, that the Bushmen are assertively egalitarian. When everyone is King, no one is King.

Being well aware of the dangers of despotism, contemporary hunter-gatherers do not imagine they can lie back and relax because egalitarianism has been achieved. There is always the danger that some individual might attempt to assert personal dominance, making people feel the need to establish and re-establish their egalitarian principles repeatedly and in highly sophisticated psychological and social ways. So freedom and despotism are constantly in conflict, although something like libertarian communism is what everyone recognises as the best way to live. To such people, private ownership seems undesirable and self-defeating because they can’t see the point of it. Where communism prevails, it is because everyone enjoys sharing their food, their songs, their laughter, their children, and, when conditions are right, also their bodies in tactile solidarity, including sex. Taboos against abuse of the human body or abuse of natural resources including game animals are certainly strong, but they emanate from below and have nothing to do with the state.

We may accept Graeber’s point that no society is ever rigidly organized according to a single principle. Invariably, there will be rhythms, periodicities, and a fluctuating mix of strategies and pressures, some generous and cooperative, some less so. In fact, the essence of the Trickster is precisely this alternation between opposite phases or states. Hunter-gatherers are well aware of the possibilities of cruelty, hierarchy, and despotism in human affairs. But they also know how to turn these dangers on their head. In view of all this, Graeber cannot be right when he denies the essentially egalitarian, communistic nature of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which not only shaped our uniquely human emotions and instincts, but was ultimately responsible for our evolutionary success as a species.

I don’t want to be too negative. One of my best memories of Graeber was the excitement I felt on first hearing him talk about communism to a mass audience. The very fact that his subject was communism seemed extraordinary. He was breaking a taboo. Who talks about communism as a living inspiration these days?

We were all part of the Occupy movement in London and had taken over various London university campuses. Graeber was, as usual, right there among us. In his typically blunt style, he reminded us that no one needs to learn to be a communist. Giving pleasure to those around us and gaining fulfilment from doing so was part of human nature. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was the principle which all of us follow when given the chance. All of us, Graeber continued to a rapt audience, feeling the need to laugh and have fun, to express ourselves socially, to be given the chance to fall back on our individuality and creativity, savoring the opportunity to establish our own community around ourselves, and feel fully part of it.

Graeber’s idea of communism as social enjoyment seemed to be refreshingly new and went down well with the crowd. Once again, however, he was breathing new life into ideas which had been around for some time. These ideas were expressed beautifully by the young Karl Marx. In his 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx devoted page after page to the concept of communism as social pleasure. “In so far as man is human and thus in so far as his feelings and so on are human,” he wrote, “the affirmation of the object by another person is equally his own enjoyment.”20

Marx may not have discussed “fun” in quite the way Graeber did,21 but he certainly wrote a good deal about enjoyment. Human productive life, according to Marx, originated as conscious gift-giving and exchange between human producers, enjoyable for its own sake. “Exchange,” as he put it, “both of human activity within production itself and also of human products with each other, is equivalent to species-activity and species-enjoyment whose real, conscious, and true being is social activity and social enjoyment.”22 To bring out this point, Marx drew an extended parallel between pleasure in creative work and pleasure in sex. Against this historical background, capitalist wage-slavery appears as a cruel distortion, no less paradoxical than the obligation to have sex merely in order to make a living. As Marx put it, “Prostitution is only a particular expression of the general prostitution of the worker.”23 Under communism, socially productive life—“species-life” as Marx called it, adopting the terminology of his intellectual circle—would cease to be experienced by workers as a mere means to their physical survival, becoming once more what it had been in the beginning: social life in its distinctively human form, enjoyable for its own sake.

Graeber’s mature outlook on politics and anthropology is such a seemingly paradoxical combination that it can seem difficult to understand where it all came from. The clue lies in the title of his major fieldwork publication, Lost People (2007).24 It was his experience in a rural community in central Madagascar that decisively cemented his perspectives on social inequality, history, religion, state coercion, the power of narrative, and, critically, grassroots opportunities for resistance.

In this rural community, people were identified as either Black, known as “Mainty,” or noble, known as “Andriana.” The Mainty were lost people in being descendants of African slaves, uprooted from their former homes, cut off from their families as they were dispersed and sold to new owners. The Andriana came originally from South Borneo. Attached tenaciously to their ancestor-worshipping traditions, they too were “lost,” but in a different sense. Reticent about their slave-holding past and still reluctant to perform physical work for cash, they became increasingly impoverished when descendants of their former slaves began to skilfully manage the rising economy of money-lending, cash transactions, and trade.

Graeber’s ethnography describes a world turning upside down as the descendants of slaves progressively employ, exploit, and partially expropriate their former masters, against the background of a colonial-era state apparatus now so moribund as to be virtually irrelevant. With insight and humour, Graeber describes a dilapidated state of post-colonial near-anarchy, giving each “lost person” freedom to construct their own narrative in their own chosen way, with effective story-telling the surest route to confidence-building, public support, and some chance of financial success. Among the more economically successful people might be an astrologer, for example, whose success would rest on a special talent for plausible fictions.

Graeber, then, found himself in a world where economic facts seemed to be determined by imaginative fictions. That was a far cry from Marx’s idea that myths and ideologies are constrained ultimately by economic processes. In Madagascar, the primacy of story-telling seemed to make a mockery of any idea of conducting rigorous science. Worse, any attempt to conduct science seemed an external imposition, reinforcing the form-filling addiction of the colonial administrator, interested only in regularities. To follow the scientific method, Graeber felt, is to close your mind to the surprises and exceptions which make up real life, subordinating people’s creative agency to alien priorities of your own. In sympathy with his eminent supervisor, the late Marshall Sahlins, Graeber resolved not to bend his own creative imagination to such deadening and artificial imperatives.

For Graeber, setting aside science was a matter of according respect and equality to the people he was living among. He saw no reason why the visiting anthropologist should set himself up as a mind operating on a higher level. So decisive was that fieldwork in shaping his world view that he went on to apply its lessons elsewhere. Human beings, he came to insist, are by their very nature free agents, not robots or slaves to scientific laws. His reluctance to seek out regularities or norms among the Malagasy became matched, in subsequent publications, by a reluctance to claim regularities in any field.

This stance led Graeber to dismiss historical materialism, in particular the idea of history as a sequence of stages. In his view, allegedly “simple” hunter-gatherers are no more likely to share their land or resources than so-called “complex” storage hunter-gatherers, farmers, or city-dwellers. For Graeber, extant hunter-gatherers are just people who happen to have been thrown together by fate, often marginalised in impoverished, hostile environments, living as best they can and inventing myths as required. We have absolutely no reason to assume that current customs of the Bushman people of the Kalahari, for example, are genuinely ancient or can teach us anything about our distant past. Graeber does not quite say that today’s hunter-gatherers are “lost people,” but the implication is there. When it comes to human origins, in his view, nothing is to be gained by focusing on hunter-gatherers. Graeber’s Madagascan experience taught him to dismiss any notion of cultural regularities or laws. Irrespective of the prevailing mode of subsistence, people will always be free to choose between alternative political forms.

Much of Graeber’s later work, co-authored with the archaeologist David Wengrow, was an approach to human origins and prehistory moulded by these views. In place of evolutionist assumptions about complexity emerging incrementally from simple beginnings, the authors argued that the very earliest fully cultural societies, such as those of Upper Palaeolithic Europe, were already highly complex. In a controversial article, the authors offered a triumphantly non-Darwinian, explicitly anti-evolutionist account of human origins.25

Because they had no interest in exploring our species’ early origins in Africa, Wengrow and Graeber pictured Homo sapiens emerging fully formed in Europe during the Upper Palaeolithic.

Again, this is an old idea, dating to when Ice Age cave paintings began to be discovered in France.

The theory that humans evolved biologically in Africa but did not get smart until they arrived in Europe received its most sophisticated formulation when the hugely influential archaeologist Colin Renfrew made it his own in the 1990s. Renfrew insisted that hunter-gatherers are too simple to have developed symbolic culture or language. His most famous evolutionary claim, known as “the sapient paradox,” was that the speciation of Homo sapiens in Africa was of little interest because our ancestors did not invent language, art, or symbolic culture until they arrived in Europe to spark the Upper Palaeolithic revolution tens of millennia later.26

For Renfrew, the hallmark of our species is civilisation, characterised by such things as complex burials, elaborate works of art, status differentials, and evidence for governing elites. Without top-down imposition of rules and regulations, he argued, there can be no social institutions, no use of symbols, and therefore no language or symbolic culture. For Renfrew, all this excludes hunter-gatherers, whose cognitive level is too rudimentary for any of this. Hunter-gatherers, he says, leave few signs of their existence and, to an archaeologist, are consequently of little interest.

The archaeologist Ian Watts demolished this entire paradigm some years ago. He pointed out that hunter-gatherers perform rituals, and that repeated enactments over immense stretches of time can sometimes leave an archaeological signature. In 2002, Watts was the ochre specialist at the celebrated site of Blombos Cave, South Africa, when evidence for the world’s first art was discovered.27 The spectacular finds consisted of numerous carefully shaped red ochre crayons, many with sharp points or bevelled edges, as if designed to produce a sharp outline of colour on a surface. Several of the pieces were decorated with abstract designs. A few years later in the same cave, evidence for an entire pigment manufacturing workshop was discovered.

The shock was that the younger layers in the cave dated to 70,000 years ago while others reached back 130,000 years or more. In fact, when Watts re-examined other African Middle Stone Age sites, it turned out that the production of red ochre pigments stretched all the way back to the emergence of Homo sapiens some 300,000 years ago. Most archaeologists now accept Watts’s suggestion that body painting for ritual performances is the most likely explanation, and that these discoveries tell us that art and symbolic culture were developed by African hunter-gatherers long before cave painting appeared in Europe.

The implications were profound. It simply couldn’t be true that our African hunter-gatherer ancestors had such little brain-power that symbolic culture was beyond them. They were performing rituals and producing art. This left Renfrew’s idea of a “sapient paradox” in ruins.

Any discussion of human nature or evolution must follow Darwin or at least take natural selection into account. This would mean turning to Africa and exploring how our species evolved from an ape-like precursor of some kind. After all, humans are a species of great ape, close genetic relatives of chimpanzees. No one has ever described chimpanzees as libertarian communists. Despite significant variation, chimpanzee politics tends to be male-dominated and despotic, with alpha males sexually coercing females and often murderously attacking their offspring. Groups of kin-related males patrol the boundaries of their range, sometimes invading their neighbours and killing any isolated individual they find.28 Chimpanzee psychology is emphatically competitive. So if, during human evolution, all this was turned upside down, then these profound changes can only be described as revolutionary.

The evolutionary anthropologist who has done more than anyone to explore and explain the cooperative nature of our species is Sarah Hrdy, the primatologist who, in books such as The Woman That Never Evolved (1981),29 Mother Nature (1999),30 and Mothers and Others (2009)31 applied “selfish gene” thinking to the study of primate and human evolution, changing everything in the process. Hrdy herself stopped short of explaining the emergence of language, art, or symbolic culture. But, building on Hrdy’s insights, Camilla Power and Watts developed a theory which seamlessly extends from biology to the full range of human cultural capacities and accomplishments.

Inevitably, there have been heated debates about all this, with Wengrow and Graeber in steadfast opposition. It is worth quoting Power’s response to their 2015 article entitled “Farewell to the ‘childhood of man,’” where she introduces her alternative hypothesis:

I want to present evidence that gender egalitarianism was pivotal to the evolution of our language-speaking ancestors. I’ll ask whether it makes a difference if our modern human bodies and minds evolved through a prolonged period of increasing egalitarianism. Would it help us if we were designed by natural and sexual selection to be happy and healthy in egalitarian conditions? If so, then perhaps the positive question that needs asking first is not ‘how did we get to be unequal?’ but ‘how did we first become equal?’”32

It is easy to see why this was a problem for Graeber. According to him, today’s followers of Darwin are afflicted by “their initial assumption: that science demands a rational explanation, that this means attributing rational motives to all behavior, and that a truly rational motivation can only be one that, if observed in humans, would normally be described as selfishness or greed.”33 Graeber recommends abandoning Darwin’s Origin of Species in favor of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid (1902). As a teenager, I was brought up on Kropotkin and loved it. But to suggest that today’s evolutionary scientists should abandon Darwin in favor of Kropotkin’s vision of all-pervasive mutual aid is just Quixotic. In any case, there is no need.

I get exasperated by the fashion on the left for knocking gene-based evolutionary science, making it look as if those who study chimpanzees and bonobos are closet sexists and racists. Yes, a gene is by definition a molecule which makes copies of itself. In that purely technical sense, it is “selfish.” After all, a gene that favored the replication of other genes at its own expense would not be around for long. But so-called “selfish gene” thinking is based on the axiom that a gene can be immortal for the simple reason that it is not confined within any single mortal body. Active as it is in numerous bodies, it will often need to promote cooperation between these in order to survive.

During the 1960s and 1970s, George C. Williams, William D. Hamilton, Sarah Hrdy, Robert Trivers, and other scientific iconoclasts demolished the previously prevailing race-against-race (so-called “group selection”) understandings of Darwinism in favor of genetic selection at the individual level. Since those pioneering times, cutting-edge Darwinians have focused overwhelmingly on ways to explain why cooperation is so central a feature in the story of life on earth.

Instead of just assuming mutual aid, as Kropotkin did, they have set out to explain the specific conditions under which it is likely to occur. Scientists now understand that it is precisely because a creature’s immortal genes are present and active in numerous mortal bodies that the logic of self-replication has been able to generate our planet’s glorious wonders of self-sacrifice, courage, and generosity—alongside, needless to say, tooth-and-claw conflict and self-interest. To sum up, the whole point of modern Darwinism is to get beyond “dog-eat-dog” ideas, exploring the conditions under which cooperation prevails.

In many ways, in fact, modern Darwinism might accurately be described as “the science of solidarity”—even, perhaps, “the science of love.” It can explain why feelings of love and solidarity don’t need to be drilled into us through systems of punishment and reward. Solidarity, which so often motivates our behaviour, is instinctive to us. It is clear that our ancestors’ generous impulses, in particular their motivation to care for one another’s children and not simply their own, made us the successful species we are.34

We can put this another way. What Graeber terms “communism” evolved in the past because it enhanced our ancestors’ reproductive success—their “fitness.” Since conclusions along these lines are now part of the mainstream, it is odd to hear followers of Graeber still complaining that evolutionary science by its very nature works on the assumption that humans are incorrigibly selfish. Today, anyone making such crude claims would be displaying their ineptitude and quickly marginalized.

Graeber has been described as the Elvis of anthropology, a reference to the way he successfully subverted his discipline, made it sexy, and became a celebrity in the process.35 For his activist supporters, his immense popularity stemmed from his courage in breaking taboos. He took pleasure in finding striking exceptions to prevailing stereotypes or imagined laws. He was willing to talk to outsiders about matters normally kept secret within the discipline: Graeber accused his professional colleagues of sitting on a vast treasure-trove of human experience as if it were something shameful, to be kept secret for fear of its political effects. Anthropology, he argued, is a discipline terrified of its own potential, fearful of divulging to students and the public at large the vast range of tried and tested alternatives to capitalism. His was the most fertile and original mind ever to have gate-crashed our discipline. By integrating economics with history, archaeology, and ethnography he left it in a much better state than he found it. His sudden and unexpected death in 2020 was a real loss.

Chris Knight is a senior research associate in the Department of Anthropology, University College London. He is the author of Blood Relations (1991) and Decoding Chomsky (2016) In 2014, the Evolutionary Linguistics Association honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

  1. David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. (New York: Melville House, 2011).
  2. See, for example, Judith Burkart et al., “The evolutionary origin of human hyper-cooperation,” Nature Communications 5 (2014): 4747.
  3. It was during the global banking crisis of 2008–2009, it will be remembered, that the bankers themselves suddenly adopted the slogan “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” They complained that since their needs had suddenly become immense, we the public should pay up to the best of our ability—which we were compelled to do.
  4. Debt, 99.
  5. Debt, 96.
  6. Debt, 95.
  7. David Graeber, “Communism,” in Keith Hart et al. (eds) The Human Economy: A Citizen’s Guide (Cambridge: Polity, 2010).
  8. Richard Lee, “Reflections on Primitive Communism,” In Tim Ingold, David Riches, and James Woodburn (eds), Hunters and Gatherers 1: History, Evolution, and Social Change (Chicago: Aldine, 1988).
  9. Hugh Brody, The Other Side of Eden. Hunter-gatherers, farmers and the shaping of the world (London: Faber and Faber, 2000).
  10. Chris Knight, and Jerome Lewis, “‘Vocal deception, laughter, and the linguistic significance of reverse dominance,” In D. Dor, C. Knight and J. Lewis (eds), The Social Origins of Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
  11. James Woodburn, “Egalitarian Societies,” Man: The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17:3 (1982): 431-451.
  12. Frank Marlowe, “Marital residence among foragers,” Current Anthropology 45:2 (2004): 277-284.
  13. Chris Knight, Blood Relations: Menstruation and the origins of culture (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).
  14. David Graeber, “Notes on the politics of divine kingship,” in David Graeber and Marshall Sahlins (eds.), On Kings (Chicago: Hau Books, 2018).
  15. On Kings, 459.
  16. On Kings, 342.
  17. On Kings, 459.
  18. Mathias Guenther, Tricksters and Trancers: Bushman Religion and Society (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999).
  19. Richard Lee, “Politics, sexual and non-sexual in an egalitarian society,” Social Science Information 17:6 (1978): 871-895.
  20. “Economic and philosophical manuscripts.” In David McLellan (ed.), Karl Marx: Early Texts (1971): 130-183. The quotation is on pages 178-79.
  21. Interview
  22. Karl Marx, “On James Mill,” in David McLellan (ed.), Karl Marx: Early Texts, (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1971): 188-203, 193.
  23. Karl Marx, “Economic and philosophical manuscripts,” In David McLellan (ed.), Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977): 98.
  24. David Graeber, Lost People. Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).
  25. David Wengrow and David Graeber, “Farewell to the ‘childhood of man’: ritual, seasonality, and the origins of inequality,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21 (2015): 597-619.
  26. Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (New York: Modern Library, 2008).
  27. Christopher Henshilwood et al. ‘Emergence of Modern Human Behavior: Middle Stone Age Engravings from South Africa’. Science 295 (2002): 1278–80.
  28. For a vivid although somewhat one-sided description, see Dale Peterson and Richard Wrangham, Demonic Males. Apes and the origins of human violence. (London: Bloomsbury, 1997). See also D. Watts & J. C. Mitani, “Infanticide and cannibalism by male chimpanzees at Ngogo, Kibale national Park, Uganda.” Primates 41, 4 (2000): 357-365.
  29. Sarah B. Hrdy, The Woman that Never Evolved. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).
  30. Sarah B. Hrdy, Mother Nature. (London: Vintage, 2000).
  31. Sarah B. Hrdy, Mothers and Others. The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. (London and Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009).
  32. Camilla Power, “Gender egalitarianism made us human: patriarchy was too little, too late.” Open Democracy (2018).
  33. David Graeber, “What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun?” The Baffler (2014).
  34. Sarah B. Hrdy, Mothers and Others. The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. (London and Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009). See also Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity (London: One World Publications, 2020).
  35. Erica Laglisse, “The Elvis of Anthropology: Eulogy for David Graeber,” The Sociological Review (October, 2020).


Chris Knight

Chris Knight is a senior research associate in the Department of Anthropology, University College London. He is the author of Blood Relations (1991) and Decoding Chomsky (2016) In 2014, the Evolutionary Linguistics Association honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2021

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